Saturday, September 25, 2010

Last days in Krakow

Our last two days in Krakow could be summed up in one word – lovely! Everything left on The Schedule was within the city, and we simply had two immensely enjoyable days visiting a few of the lesser known attractions in this city. With one exception to that as I’ll reveal later.

I went to the nearby Post Office to send home the mead I had bought at Tyniec Abbey on Sunday. It was too big to take home on the plane and as I had sent home vodka I had bought in Ukraine from Przemysl a month earlier it seemed a fairly safe option. *

After I’d picked up Agnes from our apartment, we went to the Rynek and ambled, almost subconsciously as many tourists do, into Cloth Hall. I was looking for a few souvenirs for friends; Agnes had her eyes on something a little more expensive...

You can buy the most ornately hand carved chess sets for a ludicrously cheap 25zl. I bought one myself in 2003 and I contemplated buying one for a friend. But after considering that Adam and I haven’t played chess for longer than I can remember I decided against it. Agnes was looking at very nice amber pendants. After examining about 50 of them she finally chose a lovely, deep cherry-coloured one. Despite being very touristy Cloth Hall is one of my favourite parts of Krakow. There’s vibrancy about the place that I just love. Traders just allow you to browse with no hassle or fuss and you can search to your heart’s content without being harassed. It is also a very beautiful building.

We half heartedly contemplated several lunch options but I think we both knew where we wanted to go. So after visiting several nice churches along Grodzka Street we gravitated to Bar Mleczny again for another filling and delightful lunch. Our next two places to visit were in the immediate neighbourhood so with bellies full we walked to “Ciuciu Museum”, the self styled ‘World’s Smallest Candy Factory’. It is indeed tiny, just a small shop unit where the staff actually make the sweet stuff right in front of your eyes. We were greeted with a freebie on arrival but what you see is literally it. The public were not allowed anywhere else in the factory so we left and moved on the next place, a shop called Szambelan (chamberlain). This is a small distillery of fine liqueurs, oils and vinegars. Customers are allowed as many free samples as they wish and we certainly took advantage of it. After a few I was definitely feeling the benefits of a slight alcoholic haze. I bought a honey and a blueberry liqueur for myself and a bottle of mead for a friend back home.

After recharging the batteries back the apartment, or ‘home’ as we had now begun to call it, we went out for an evening in and around the Rynek. One of the more unusual places of interest here is the arty and very atmospheric place called Piwnica Pod Baranami (’the Cellar under the Rams). Piwnica pod Baranami served as the most renowned political cabaret in the country, until the end of (and beyond) the communist era. After nearly fifty years Piwnica became a legend of local eccentricity; nowadays it hosts the popular Summer Jazz Festival, and regular exhibitions, music recitals and a cinema. Unlike any cinema I have ever been to, I must say. We bought tickets to a Liam Neeson film and sat down. The theatre itself was tiny; I think I counted no more than 30 seats which were all free standing arm chairs. The film itself was shown by an old fashioned projector which gave that old fashioned flicker at the edges. This was a piece of Krakow culture that I was very happy to be a part of, not many of my fellow Brits would find there way here. After the film, which was very thought provoking and intelligent we went to the cocktail bar next door. I was reluctantly served by the world’s rudest barman and Agnes and I sat down to a few relaxing drinks. We decided to have a few cocktails but despite it being half an hour before closing time the aforementioned barman refused to serve me. We didn’t allow this to dampen our mood so we left for another slow walk through the Rynek back home. It had been a great day.

Our last day in Krakow! We both didn’t want it to come so soon… I had been given a request the night before, scrambled eggs for breakfast! So in the morning I got up and made some. Unfortunately I used a plastic stirrer to mix them up as they were cooking which had the effect of giving the eggs a slight after taste of plastic. The thought was there at least...

After the oeuf d’plastique we took a walk to Stary Kleparz market, a simple traditional market that had stood in Krakow for generations. We were both disappointed that we hadn’t been there before; if we had then I’m sure we’d have been there more often and made less visits to the Carrefour supermarket. Everything was very cheap and fresh, this was a real slice of local Krakow life. I don’t recall seeing another foreigner in there.

As we were leaving, we watched an old lady who sat there contentedly knitting woollen socks. She had this charming weathered look about her that was quite endearing. At first we both thought how sad it was that a lady of her advanced years had to scratch a living on a daily basis selling her handmade wares. Then it occurred to me that there was nothing bitter or sad about her, she seems to be one of those few lucky people who humbly took life as it happens and appreciated even the smallest pleasures. She had a genuine look of joy on her face when we both bought a pair of her socks. I didn’t buy them because I wanted them; I bought them because I wanted to buy something from her, if that makes any sense. Agnes got a little emotional when we left her and I could understand that, this lady’s good, honest eyes had affected us both. I even went back and bought two more pairs.

We walked to Florianska Street and the first place on our itinerary today, the Krakow Pharmacy Museum. Florianska Street is where the Kings of Poland would enter Krakow on their way to Wawel Hill. It was a shame therefore that such a significant street is now probably the street most lost over to the tourist revolution that has come to the city. Neon signs and tourist orientated shops are everywhere. The pharmacy museum however was a delight. Founded in 1946 it is one of a few of its kind in the world. Exhibits collected here show the history of pharmacy from the Middle Ages to modern times. An eighteenth-century pharmacy has been reconstructed inside, as well as some other interiors - like an old laboratory, an apothecary cellar with barrels and flasks for medicinal wines, and an apothecary attic for drying and storing herbs. The museum also houses a library preserving old herbals, antidotaria, pharmacopoeias and other old prints relating to the history of the art of preparing drugs. I couldn’t resist buying an interesting souvenir; Pilulae Perpetuae, or reusable pills meant to cleanse your insides from anything undesirable. The ‘reusable’ part didn’t actually register with me until we’d left much to our amusement. I’ll leave it up your imagination as to the reusable function but if you are ever round my house and ask me for a headache tablet I’d advise you to examine it closely...

As tempting as it was to go back to Bar Mleczny we decided to seek out somewhere different and settled on a traditional looking restaurant hidden down an alley off the Rynek. It was impressive looking but the food was a little disappointing, which left me wishing we’d gone back to the Milk Bar. We heard raised voices from the kitchen which turned out to be a heated argument between the owner and the chef. Apparently the owner was not too impressed with the quality of the food he was letting leave the kitchen…

After lunch we walked to Mariacki Church which was simply breathtaking! The highlight is of course the fabulous altarpiece, carved by Veit Stoss. The 15th century masterpiece is the biggest Gothic altarpiece in the world, and the realistically carved figures of St. Mary and the Saints are about 2.7 meters high. Obviously, we also climbed the tower that gives amazing views over the city. It was a long climb - over 230 steps - but the panorama was simply stunning. You can see for miles around, Wawel, Kazimierz and an incredible view of Cloth Hall and the Rynek. At every single hour of the day a fireman plays a trumpet and stops mid stream. This ostensibly is to commemorate the 13th trumpeter who - so the legend goes - was shot in the throat whilst playing his trumpet to sound a warning to the people of Krakow of an impending invasion. As is the case with many such legends it isn’t true, a tour guide down below in the church had told us that. It was a great spectacle to see, another Krakovian tradition we had taken part in.

Our last real item on The Schedule was one I was looking forward to immensely, Oscar Schlinder’s factory Emalia Fabrik, where - as we all know - over 1000 Jews were sheltered from certain death in the Holocaust. I’ve mentioned many times my interest in this period so to finally go to the Factory was an amazing moment for me. It is on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Krakow and so to ensure we got in we took a taxi there. I’m glad we did as I’m not sure we’d have found it otherwise.

I’ve been to many museums about that particular time in history but this one was definitely the best one. The museum is not a reconstruction of the factory but an interactive Museum dedicated to the every-day life in occupied Krakow. Among many superb interestingly presented exhibits were street signs which were renamed Krakow Rynek as Adolf Hitler Platz and Krakow Glowny to Krakau Hbf and 3 or 4 huge swastika flags, hung from ceiling to the wall. Later Agnes told me that she was irrationally angry seeing them just hanging there, as they were the very symbol of all the evil that has been committed during the war. Personally I felt that the museum proprietors had a right to display the flags, after all the citizens of Krakow were forced to look at them every day for six years. I just felt it unnecessary to display four of them in a single room when one would have made the point just as well. That also disturbed me, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going though the minds of the citizens at the time who were forced to watch their Polish heritage being systematically eradicated. Some of the exhibits brought a tear to my eye. I was also very happy to see the parts of the factory that had been restored, namely two offices, one of which was Oscar Schindler’s. I was a little worried that the whole excursion was a little self indulgent of me so I was pleased to hear that Agnes had enjoyed it as much as me. We sat down for a few photos in reconstructed hairdressers for a little too long as we were sternly told No sitting!

I think it’s fair to say I was beaming outside the museum, I was realising an ambition to be here and probably went a little photo crazy. To summarize, this museum is very cleverly done; the strikingly vivid arrangement of the exhibition, which relies on the latest technological developments, is meant to aid it in reaching viewers who only know the history of the Second World War from textbooks.

Our last night was spent in a lovely restaurant Miod Malina; we had noticed it when walking along Grodzka Street. We were both in relaxed moods and looking forward to a nice final meal and our second planned evening meal in a restaurant of the week. The restaurant was evidently popular and we sat down with a nice view of an open wood oven. I had a similar starter that I’d had in Gdansk a few months ago. A sausage soup which is served in a bowl made of bread. It was delightful. We had a lovely meal and a pleasant evening. There was only one place we just had to visit one more time: Tribeca Coffee for one last White Chocolate Mocha. We were both in a reflective nostalgic mood by now with the end of our ‘Week in Krakow’ now in sight. We just spoke warmly about the week, our highlights and fond memories and it was a perfect way to end our last evening. There was nothing else left apart from the slowest of walks through the Rynek, taking in the sights one last time and walking through a pretty little corner just behind Mariacki church.

So that was it, the end of a wonderful week in a wonderful city. The week had flown by and I was almost in disbelief that the seven days had passed. But what an amazing seven days it had been.

* Footnote: Two weeks later, still no sign of the mead.

P.S Z podziękowaniami dla mojego duch pisarza, Kocham Cię xx

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


For salvation, kaddish,
For redemption, kaddish,
For forgiveness, kaddish,

Our destination today would be Oswiecim, a town 70km away from Krakow, which sadly, will always be known as Nazi Germany's largest concentration and extermination camp - Auschwitz.

Rip-off tourist companies try to fleece visitors with charges of 99zl for an excursion to the camp. Anyone with an ounce of common sense and ability to do a little research would discover than the town of Oswiecim is a simple and very cheap train journey from Krakow Station. I came here first in 1999 and on arrival today, immediately thought that the train station was exactly the same as it was 11 years ago, no modernization here it seems.

I feel that at a place like Auschwitz anyone should be allowed to take the visit at their own pace and be granted as much time as necessary to gather their thoughts. After all, it’s possible that any given visitor might be there to grieve a relative who had died there. So we both were shocked and appalled to discover that entry to the Auschwitz will be exclusively on a guided group basis from 10am to 3pm. The Auschwitz memorial website says: “There will be no change to the way organized groups visit the Museum. The Auschwitz II-Birkenau site is opened for visitors without the guide all day long during the opening hours of the Memorial” The 38zl charge was thus extortionate and insulting.

So at precisely 1330 we were given earphones, amplifiers and an allocated tour guide and we suddenly became part of something I hate - sheep in an organized tour. This whole discovery didn’t do much for our moods; we were both annoyed and disappointed.

We waited by the notorious ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates for the start of the tour where just as I thought to turn my phone off, the bloody thing rang. In panic I completely forgot how to cancel the call and with my cheeks turning crimson the tune of Top Gear rang out loudly for all to hear, I felt very embarrassed.

Now I’m not going to go into explicit details of what happened in the camp. We all know what the Nazi’s did and the barbaric and sadistic practices they undertook. It was probably mankind’s darkest hour, if truth be told. What affected me the most was learning in finer detail the extent the Nazi’s went to sadistically dehumanize the inmates. Sleep and dietary deprivation and ritualistic punishments were commonplace. When I came here before when I left, I felt numb and profoundly affected by the experience. Maybe it was the fact that I was a lot younger and I had seen a scene of mass murder for the first time. This time, I was still affected but to a lesser extent. I guess I was mentally prepared for the horror and despair this place has witnessed but also annoyed by the whole guided tour ordeal. Nevertheless, Auschwitz and Birkenau remains a haunting experience and simply defies belief.

Agnes words: I was really moved by a long corridor where rows of faces stare from the walls. Thousands of pictures of Auschwitz’s prisoners, in simple, wooden frames. They are all dead now, the men, women and children who stood before the cameras. I wonder if they all knew they were to die. They all stare blank-faced. What was the thought that passed through their mind at that very moment…

We followed our guide and visited various barracks, prison cells and torture chambers. But at all times I felt the pressure of being part of this group and felt rushed into moving onto the next exhibit, before I had read whatever display had caught my attention. It was very frustrating and ruined my experience of the day. Even when we visited a gas chamber we were rushed out in less than 10 minutes.

We were herded back to the start of the camp, surrendered our headphones and awaiting the free bus to the second part of the trip, Auschwitz II- Birkenau.

Birkenau is the larger of the two main camps and served solely as an Extermination Camp for the implementation of the Nazi plan ‘The Final Solution’. We arrived and walked along the railways tracks which brought prisoners to the infamous Parade Ground where ‘The Selection’ took place. The scale of the camp was overwhelming. Barracks stretched off into the horizon covering the 142 hectare site. Our guide ushered us into a accommodation barrack but predictably we were rushed out quite quickly and walked alongside the railway line to the far end of the camp. A gas chamber which the retreating Nazis had tried and failed to destroy was pointed out to us as was the many national tributes by the nations who had lost citizens in the camp.

As we were walking along the railway tracks to this point I noticed Agnes picked a small, pretty flower growing wildly out of the ground, I wondered why for a moment but with my head full of thoughts it slipped out of my mind. As we slowly walked along those national monuments she quietly placed the flower on the monument to the citizens of The Netherlands who had perished in the camp. I was glad I hadn't asked of the meaning of the flower earlier.

We had seen enough at this point and decided to return back Oswiecim and our train home. We took the free bus back to Auschwitz I and stopped for a late lunch at the cafeteria. We both had mushroom soup. I thought it was average at best, quite tasteless, and it was probably only because I was very hungry that I finished it. Agnes later described it as “probably the worst soup I have ever had in my life”.

So that was the day, I hope I’ve done what I saw justice in this post but one final thought I want to write about was the often heard theory that birds don’t fly over Auschwitz. I made a point of looking for some several times and I have to say I didn’t see any. Food for thought certainly...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wawel Hill, a Communist Cafeteria & Roger

As The Schedule told us, Monday should be a “Wawel Hill day”. When I was here seven years ago I had inexplicably not managed to go to Krakow’s main attraction, Wawel Castle. Agnes was pretty appalled when she heard that but luckily, today I got a chance to atone for my past omission.

Wawel Castle sits proudly and imposingly at the top of Wawel Hill on the bank of the River Wisla: it dominates Krakow’s skyline and it’s impossible to miss. Unless you’re me, one might say. For over thousand years the whole country was ruled from Wawel Hill: it was the site of The Royal Castle and the Cathedral, where Polish kings were crowned and buried. This practice continued even after the Polish capital was shifted north to Warsaw. Not only Kings were buried there but also the most cherished poets, writers and national heroes. It’s the Westminster Abbey of Poland.

To get there we took a leisurely walk from our apartment, through the Rynek and down along Grodzka Street to the cobbled uphill path to the ticket office and Outer Courtyard of the castle.

We first strolled around, to stop at one particular wall of the Inner Courtyard. Apparently, Wawel Hill is one of seven of the World’s energy points, so called “chakra” and this wall is supposed to be its epicentre. Hindus believe that the chakra is part of a powerful energy field which connects all living things. But Wawel’s chakra isn’t advertised by the local authorities - they grew tired of New Age tourists coming to Wawel to recharge their spiritual batteries by hugging the wall. They've done what they can to discourage this ritual, but believers still gravitate from far and wide. We were lucky to identify the right spot - a kind security guard pointed it out. Now, I can’t say I felt anything when I leant against it. But I have to say that immediately after making an ironic comment doubting the recharging theory, my new fancy camera phone somehow jumped out of my hand onto the concrete floor, nearly breaking. Agnes was quick to point the possible bad karma I may have created by laughing at its mystical powers, so we both offered our humble apologies to the wall. You never know….

After visiting the impressive armoury with weapons dating back centuries, we went to the Cathedral, the very heart of Polish history. All but four of Poland’s monarchs are buried here. As we entered the Cathedral our sight was drawn to the dominating Tomb of St Stanislaw, which is a grand silver sarcophagus surrounded by a splendid wrought ironworks. We walked around, admiring the ornate architecture and many impressive sculptures that adorned the passageways. I sneaked a few photos of a particularly nice chapel and we made our way out into the sunlight and onto the Crypts, a scene of recent controversy.

As previously mentioned, you have to be a pretty special individual to even be considered for burial in Wawel Cathedral. So when it was certain that the failing President Lech Kaczynski, who died tragically in a plane crash, was to be buried there it provoked immense public outcry. He probably would’ve lost the upcoming election and become a forgotten man but the shock and high emotion of losing so many national figures meant it happened. But disagreement continues to this day. To put it into some kind of perspective it would be like burying Gordon Brown had he died, in Westminster Abbey, alongside Edward the Confessor, Elisabeth I and Charles Dickens. It was worth observing how most of the Poles appeared to shun Kaczynski’s tomb and quickly precede downstairs, onto Marshal Pilsudski crypt, the WWI hero. His tomb was once moved there, so his soldiers who came to party on his grave wouldn't disturb the others. It's interesting to know that Pilsudski encouraged Britain and France to pre-emptively attack Hitler in 1933. He was ignored and Europe was devastated a decade later.

Finally, we decided to climb to the top of the Cathedral’s Tower. And again I couldn’t help but wonder how The Health and Safety department would react had they seen the unsecured stairs we had to walk! The panorama from the top of the Tower was wonderful and well worth our asthmatic breathing. The Tower also contains the bronze heart of Poland – the giant Sigismund Bell, cast in 1520. Apart from major religious and national holidays, the bell was rung only on some of the most significant moments in the history of Poland, including the German invasion of Poland, on the eve of Poland's entry into the European Union, etc. It is believed that if you touch its clapper and whisper a wish, it will come true. As you can imagine, we both stood there for quite some time, mumbling and trying to conjure up some luck...

We left Wawel Hill soon after, stopping for some very touristy photos with a guy dressed up as a Knight. Had to give him his dues, he was enthusiastic and posed for several pictures without charging an extortionate amount.

We were both quite hungry now so headed down Grodzka Street looking for lunch options. We stopped in the student orientated Bar Mleczny (Milk Bar) for lunch. Milk Bars were invented by the communist authorities of Poland in the mid-1960s as a means of offering cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. Its name originates from the fact that until the late 1980s the meals served there were mostly dairy-based and vegetarian. If anyone judges a place from a quick glance inside then they would miss out on this place. The interior was really basic and plain but the food was delightful! I had pork which melted in the mouth, lovely soft dumplings, a cake and a smoothie for less than 20zl, about £4. It’s always satisfying to find places like this as its authentic and pleasingly free of other tourists. Look for Bar Mleczny signs when in Poland, you won’t regret it!

We had decided that we would eat out twice during our seven night stay in Krakow and tonight would be one of those nights. We went to the Klezmer Hois restaurant in the Kazimierz District, otherwise known as The Jewish Quarter. In the 14th century Polish King, Kazimierz the Great, encouraged Jews to come to Poland and they settled here comfortably. A legend says that Kazimierz (the king) established Kazimierz (the village) for his favourite girlfriend — a Jewish woman named Esther — just outside the city walls. It was an autonomous community with its own Town Hall, market square, and city walls. This area of Krakow has a deep interest to me and I was very happy to be going there. Agnes did her best to put my high expectations into some kind of perspective - after the Jewish community was virtually exterminated during the Holocaust and the surviving Jews mainly choosing to move away, this area fell into a long period of deprivation and is only quite recently beginning to awaken from its slumber. So if you are looking for a “fiddler on the roof” kind of an atmosphere there, well, you’ll be disappointed. Apart from a few old shops with old traditional Jewish names on them the area isn’t overly Jewish looking and is indeed still looking quite rundown. It was still good to be there though.

Our dinner included a live concert of a Klezmer band. Klezmer is a musical tradition of the Jews of Eastern Europe; the genre consists largely of dance tunes and instrumental display pieces for weddings and other celebrations. The female singer had a very deep and haunting voice and the music was really lovely. Unfortunately, Jewish cuisine was a little disappointing; I had a spicy bean starter soup and a stew for main which tasted quite similar to the starter. Ah, well…

On the table next to us, was a lonely man sat on his own, a position I have been in many times during my travels. He seemed quite keen in striking up a conversation with us, probably after overhearing us speaking English. He was a nice friendly man who didn’t need much of an invitation to place his wine glass on our table and gently shift his chair to face us. He was an Englishman from Kent, his name was Roger and he was an English teacher living in Switzerland. He was an interesting character to say the least, probably the first Judeo - Christian Fundamentalist I have ever met. Being in the Jewish quarter of a city with a significant Jewish heritage this is where the conversation inevitably drifted, along with an in-depth discussion of the Israeli Palestinian problem. I felt myself becoming increasingly marginalised in the conversation as my knowledge of the subject matter was very limited when compare to Agnes and Roger. I became an interested spectator, chipping in with the odd comment when I felt comfortable and sat back and watched with interest Agnes destroying his extremist sounding argument that Palestinians have no right to be in Israel. It never became confrontational or argumentative but his views were fixed and not much was going to shift them. After our meal we left, Roger walked with us back to the Rynek and we went our separate ways.

So another full and interesting but relaxing day, we’ve both enjoyed. The Schedule for tomorrow would be very different though…

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tyniec Abbey, Canine Fancy Dress Show & A Moment In History

Sunday began with a bit too early - for my liking - start in order to get to Tyniec, a wonderful Benedictine Abbey, which holds a dramatic place in nearly 1000 years of Polish history. Nine centuries ago Benedictines arrived at this place. On the rock by the Vistula River, 12-13 km off the city centre, they built a monastery - abbacy, which emerges from the trees and reflects in the river. Monks had lived there continuously for almost all of that time and it had a special place in Polish people’s hearts in the sense that it had long been in the forefront of the numerous times Poland has been invaded by its neighbours over the centuries. We were expecting quite a scene of Gregorian monks singing amongst a traditional Catholic Sunday Service.

Due to my inability to rouse myself to a deadline in the morning we had to get a taxi to the Abbey which cost an unexpected 100zl, nearly 20 pounds. The church itself was spectacular with a beautiful black and gold pulpit in the shape of a ships prow. I have to be honest and admit I expected the Monks singing to be more prominent however it was still interesting to see the service despite not being Catholic ( or Polish) myself. After the service had finished we bought a few bottles of mead made by the monks and headed back to Krakow via public transport this time. The slowly growing numbers of people at the bus stop gave me confidence that the once an hour bus would indeed turn up and it did.

Whilst doing her research for ‘The Schedule’ Agnes had stumbled upon something that was so bizarre and fantastic that we just had to investigate; The Daschund Parade on the Rynek, back in Central Krakow. Once a year the local folk of Krakow and beyond, dress up their furry friends in all kinds of imaginative fancy dress and parade on the square competing for a prize. This year the parade had a theme, the 600th anniversary of The Battle Of Grunwald. This was a significant battle in Polish history, and one of the biggest in medieval Europe, when the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth secured a famous victory over the Teutonic Knights.
I suspect though, that the enjoyment was purely the taking part as I watched the proud owners carrying and sometimes walking their pets through the square. Have to say not all of the dogs looked overjoyed though! Some of the costumes made by the owners were quite incredible, I saw a Spanish Matador costume, Bavarian Lederhosen with a perfect hat made from loft insulation, a milkmaid outfit, a Knight complete with sword, Scottish Tartan, A kings regal robes amongst others. The atmosphere on the square was very jovial and the owners were very happy to pose for pictures with their dogs.

We had identified our favourite coffee shop on the Rynek, Tribeca Coffee, and we decamped there to take the weight off our feet and took - as always - white mocha chocolate. It was a lovely place only the heating was sometimes too high. A few times during the day Agnes had mentioned that something special was happening on the Main Square, the Rynek, at 3 pm but she wouldn’t say what. So with the time approaching, she hurried me to a spot on the other side of Cloth Hall, in front of Mariacki Church where a large crowd had already gathered. Agnes finally unraveled the mystery and explained that a large group photo of the people of Krakow was being taken by a photographer high up on the tower of the Church in front of us. This photo, together with other items typical for the year 2010 was then to be placed in a time capsule, on top of Cloth Hall. Our chance to be in a moment of history! We stood there, waving on cue, happy to be part of something quite unique.

All that was left of the day was some enjoyable browsing through Cloth Hall and in complete contrast, a walk through the sparkling new indoor shopping centre adjacent to the main train station, Galeria Krakowska where I bought some lovely flavored coffee. It was a lovely day, full of surprises, we both were settling into Krakow life quite easily.

A Very Wet Day

High on our long list of ‘Must do’s’ in Krakow, also known as “The Schedule” was The Dunajec River Gorge rafting trip. We had planned to do it on the first day of good weather we had which according to the forecast was Saturday. The Dunajec river is the natural border between Poland and Slovakia. It breaks through beautiful limestone mountains, creating some of the most incredible, narrow and sharply winding gorge in rocks. It is considered to be the most glorious part of the Pieniny Mountains. We had high hopes for this trip and expected nothing but a relaxing day admiring the nature.

Agnes’ research said that it was a simple bus ride from the Krakow bus station direct to the top of the mountain where the rafting ride left. Therefore full of confidence, we decided to leave our apartment at noon. Unfortunately when at the station we looked into buses to the destination point, Sromowce Kąty village, there didn’t appear to be any. However after asking at the information point, Agnes found that it SHOULD be possible to get there by several buses but by no means guaranteed to meet every connection. We jumped on our first bus which was really just a minivan to a non-descript town, full in the knowledge that it was a gamble. After an uncomfortable one hour journey, we arrived. It seemed like our gamble had backfired – because it was Saturday there was no bus to Sromowce Kąty at all. We were running out of time; last rafting trip started at 4pm. Some more investigating followed and it turned out that there was a bus was leaving soon to yet another small town near to Sromowce Kąty where we could either walk a few miles to the departure point or hope a bus came along. We took this bus only to find when we got off it that the final connection had left five minutes before and the next one was over an hour away. We were stuck in a tiny mountain hamlet, with no shelter and not in the best of moods but surprisingly chirpy. The air was crystal clear, views to die for and that calming silence…

Fortune favours the brave, the bus we assumed had left five minutes earlier was ten minutes late and we grateful jumped on it to the rafting station and the end of an unexpectedly difficult journey.

The rain had stopped thankfully; we paid our 44zl and made our way to the water’s edge for the next ride down the river. I didn’t really know what to expect of the boat, what I did expect was it to be bigger and higher off the water! It was no more than 3 metres wide by about 6 metres long and riding about 30 cm off the water which wasn’t much in calm water, I wondered how much came over when we went through the rough water. We were actually lucky to be able to take the ride at all; regulations prohibit rafting rides when the water level is above a certain level which was the case a few days previous, today was the first day that the levels had fallen to a level which allowed them to take place.

Despite being very close to the sometime quite rough water and not wearing a life jacket we felt very safe on board the wooden boat and just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. The raft man, called in Polish “flisak” skillfully navigated the raft down the river with a pole in a similar way that boats are punted along the river Cam in Cambridge; only the river is very wild in places. He did a pretty amazing job and it was clear to see why it takes six years to train to become a fully qualified Flisak. The Flisak trade on the Dunajec river is centuries-old. Originally, Flisacy used their wooden rafts to fish the once plentiful salmon in the river or to transport goods downstream.
Clad in a round-brimmed black felt hat decorated with small white cowry shells, a white shirt, beige slacks and a dark blue felt waistcoat cheerfully hand-embroidered with colourful flowers, our raft man easily sank a two-meter long wooden pole into the swirling greenish-brown waters of the Dunajec. Thanks to his extensive training he knew everything about the history and the environment of the area. He spoke only Polish which was fine for Agnes but not for the handful of non Polish speakers on the boat. She translated the most important and interesting stuff for me but the stunning scenery more than made of for the fact I couldn’t understand the commentary. The river crosses in and out of Slovakia through some of the most incredible scenery I have ever seen in Europe. It was nice to just relax and let the river carry us down for almost 2 hours. I couldn’t help but think what the ridiculous Health & Safety brigade in the UK would have made of the whole operation. Small wooden boats, with only a few inadequate life jackets for those who asked for them on board, no seat belts, no long drawn out pre departure safety announcements. It was pure bliss, a long standing tourist tradition with a 100% safety record in over a hundred years just allowed to get on with its business without interference from those who think they know best. The only incident they have ever had was someone jumping overboard and swimming to the Slovakian shore in order to escape to the west via Austria in Communist times. We could learn from this live and let live attitude.

It started to rain towards the end of the ride as we approached the end point at the spa town of Szczawnica. We were both starving so headed for a small restaurant where we bother enjoyed warm coffee and tea. We had no idea of what time the bus back to Krakow left so we made a beeline for the bus stop. After an uncomfortable walk up hill and after initially standing on the wrong side of the road we found a bus stop apparently going to Krakow. It made no sense at all, a bus was due, or so we thought but nothing arrived and we were left with an hour’s wait to the next advertised bus, not even knowing if it would arrive. We were now sheltering in a flight of stairs contemplating the possibility that we could be stranded in Szczawnica and that an expensive taxi ride would be our only option if no bus came. Thankfully it did and we settled down to 2 hour bus ride back to Krakow. Tired, uncomfortably squeezed but incredibly satisfied with everything we have seen and experienced that day.
That was the end of our first day and what a memorable one it was, for more reasons than one.

Krakow, good to be back.

My long awaited week’s holiday to Krakow with Agnes began with a very unsocial 0330 bus to Stansted from Rayleigh. What should have been a chance for a doze on the hours ride to the airport was rudely interrupted along the A120 as we were approaching Stansted by a driver of a car who had been flashing his lights and shouting at the driver to stop. I had been vaguely aware of the flashing was tried to ignore them in order to grab some sleep; I assumed with the flashing lights it was just a boy racer trying to pass but when the driver of our bus starting shouting back my interest was aroused. I heard the driver of the adjacent car shout that the bus’ luggage compartment was wide open as we were going down the dual carriageway. I watched the driver go visibly white and pulled the coach over to inspect it. Initially he thought he had got away with it but then a middle aged couple got out and realised that their large suitcase containing everything for a three week holiday to Spain had fallen out. Cue hysterical woman, shouting, accusations and general chaos at the side of a busy road at 0415. Poor sods, I had to feel for them.
On to Krakow, I found our apartment that Agnes had booked and waited outside as arranged for Pawel (Paul), the Italian owner’s Polish representative. Clutching an email that clearly said:”wait outside Radziwillowska Street, no 7 for the keys between 11 and 12” I waited, and waited some more. When it got to 1230 I finally called Pawel who said I should’ve called him on arrival! Sometimes even being organised and punctual isn’t enough.

Agnes wasn’t due to arrive until 1815 from Katowice so after a short nap on the sofa I went off for a short walk around the Main Square of Krakow, the Rynek, which I was looking forward to immensely. I hadn’t been to Krakow for seven years and it was one the highlights of a two month trek around Europe in 2003. Approaching the square along Mikolajowska Street to the Rynek several things became obvious that Krakow has changed a lot in seven years. Firstly the number of English voices I heard and the second, the commercialisation that has occurred. I felt back in 2003 that I was at the beginning of that era; now it’s firmly arrived. Signs in English advertising cheap beer, happy hours, and Premier League football were a sad indication that Krakow is no longer a mysterious well kept secret of Central Europe but a major and successful tourist hub. It is no less beautiful but when I first came here people came here for Krakow, its art, its history and architecture, now the majority of people come here for the cheap bear, lap dancing and nightlife.
When I turned the corner past Mariacki Church the memories of this amazing square came flooding back, the stunning medieval trading market Cloth Hall right in the middle, the Town Hall Tower just behind and the differently coloured facades of the building lining the square made me feel like I’d been here yesterday. I didn’t remember quite so many horse drawn carriages touting for business or numerous tourists reps accosting me selling tours but for the rest it was amazing to be back. I couldn’t resist a walk through Cloth Hall and a walk around the square before a text from Agnes told me that she’d be an hour earlier than planned, so I made my way to the bus station to wait for her.
She arrived sat in the front seat. Apparently the bus driver took quite a liking to her and Agnes quite cleverly used this to her advantage to secure the front passenger seat of the bus to avoid the motion sickness she suffers from. We just walked back to the apartment and our week’s holiday that we had been planning for quite some time had begun.